Shabbat Message from Rabbi Brigitte Rosenberg
This Shabbat we begin the book of Numbers, which in Hebrew is Bamidbar. With the start of this new book and parashat Bamidbar, the Torah comes back to a more narrative story, as it continues with the Israelites’ journey. Thus far they have made the journey out of Egypt, out of slavery moving toward freedom. By receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai, they have solidified their relationship and the covenant with God. Now they are on a journey to the Promised Land. Figuring out, along the way, how they will live with Torah, have faith in God, and most importantly have faith in themselves.
The word Bamidbar means “in the wilderness.” The wilderness is a perfect place for their journey to take place, as individuals and as a people they have to learn how to leave slavery behind and embrace the freedom that will come next. Stop for a moment and consider the “wilderness.” Some may think of a desert; others lush green forests, while others still may think of field upon field of wild grass and flowers. Whatever image comes to mind, I think all can agree that wilderness is open, vast, and widespread. The wilderness often doesn’t belong to any one person, but rather to the world at large. It is open to exploration and within it lies a myriad of possibilities and opportunities waiting to be explored. Often when we find ourselves in the wilderness, we are on a journey seeking to explore what is around us. Sometimes we may not actually be in a physical wilderness but feel like we are with feelings of being lost or that there is a journey before us that needs to be made. When we find ourselves in this place it is often because we are journeying from one thing to another.
I recently read a beautiful d’var Torah by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in which he stated, “the journey from is always easier than the journey to… the traveling forward is often harder.” He continues,
“There is a biological reason why this is so. We are genetically predisposed to react strongly to danger. Our deepest instincts are aroused. We move into the fight-or-flight mode, with our senses alert, our attention focused, and our adrenalin levels high. When it comes to fleeing-from, we often find ourselves accessing strengths we did not know we had. But fleeing-to is something else entirely. It means making a home in a place where, literally or metaphorically, we have not been before. We become “strangers in a strange land.” We need to learn new skills, shoulder new responsibilities, acquire new strengths. That calls for imagination and willpower. It involves the most unique of all human abilities: envisaging a future that has not yet been and acting to bring it about. Fleeing-to is a journey into the unknown.”
His lesson is a huge “aha” at this moment. For our ancestors, leaving was easy, the exodus was easy, but arriving at their destination, the Promised Land, was so hard. Their journey was 40 years in the making. And what of us, when we find ourselves in the wilderness? I don’t know about you, but the past 9+ weeks have felt like a wilderness journey. Weeks ago, we left “normal” behind, in order to flatten the curve, to save ourselves and others. We moved away from our busy lives into the solitude and safety of our homes. For many of us, just as Rabbi Sacks teaches, we were in “fight or flight” mode, and we were reacting to the dangers of a virus in our midst. We had to learn how to slow down, how to stay in and get things done in new and different ways. Our families, our places of work, our congregation had to learn how to work differently so that we could all keep moving forward.
And, now,with things beginning to slowly open, I think it is time for us to think about the part of our wilderness trek that encompasses the journey to. It is now time for us to figure out how to move forward, how to live in a “new” normal recognizing that, sadly, this virus isn’t going away anytime soon. And this is when we all realize that leaving “normal” behind wasn’t so difficult, but having to figure out how to arrive at a “new normal,”is a different story. Wow, there is a lot to consider!!
Each of us has to decide what our own new normal, our “journey to…” will look like in this age of COVID-19. This won’t be easy! Whether we like it or not, life is a journey through many different wilderness moments, taking us from one place to another. The hardest part is figuring out how to keep moving to – moving toward whatever our goal.
Throughout the book of Numbers, Bamidbar, we will read of the many mistakes our Israelite ancestors made. At the heart of their mistakes, is that they focused too much on the present, on the things that annoyed them in the moment, rather than thinking about their future. When difficulties arose, they let fear overtake their faith. They focused on the past, on what was, rather than looking ahead to what could be. They knew how to leave but they didn’t know how to arrive.
This is where we are today. We have to look forward and not back. We need to not look at how things were before COVID but instead look forward and consider how things might be! We are entering a new reality and we have the power and the ability to create and arrive at our own “new normal.” In moving out of one wilderness and into a new one, who knows what amazing things we may discover or find! Perhaps our journey from one normal to the next, will be just what we and our world need in order to make freedom, peace, blessing, and joy – a reality for all!
I look forward to sharing Shabbat with you in our digital space and look forward to the day when we can once again be together in person!
Rabbi Brigitte Rosenberg